COME UP HERE WITH US

John 13:31-35

Forty years ago, John Bodo, the pastor of Old First, went on a month-long vacation, leaving the newly ordained Assistant Pastor and the Seminary Intern to work out the preaching schedule.  Bob and I decided to set up four pairs of “opposites” as sermon topics, with each of us taking on two of those pairs.  I no longer see life as so neat, clear and linear; but 40 years ago it fell to me to preach on “hope or despair.”

Rev. Glenda Hope

We were haunted by the all-too-recent assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, of Malcolm X as he returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca to begin preaching the Compassion of Allah, of Dr. King, that apostle of non-violence become a prophet warning us of the three-headed beast of poverty, racism and militarism, and by the killing of students at Jackson State and Kent State.  We were enmeshed in a years-long war and the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

I called that sermon “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and harked back to trudging through my hometown of Atlanta behind a mule-drawn wagon bearing the body of Dr. King. The church funeral had already been held, but there was only room inside for the famous and the powerful.  All the others had to walk in the streets, until the procession reached a college campus miles away. I was crowded into a space behind a small rise, my only view the backs of the two men standing atop it. Two men who had suffered from poverty, racism and militarism in ways I never will. One of them looked around and said: “Oh. You can’t see! Come up here with us.” Somehow, in drawing me up to that literal higher ground, they also drew me out of cynicism and despair to the higher ground of hope. We stood with our arms around each other. We clung to each other, tears falling freely, as Mahalia Jackson sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand.”  We swayed together as 80,000 voices sang, “We shall overcome, we’ll walk hand in hand, we shall live in peace, we are not afraid.”

We were afraid. Afraid of the violence boiling up outside of us and afraid of the violence roiling up inside of us. We still are. Afraid we will give up hope; afraid we’ll give in to despair.  Do you ever feel that?  On that day in Atlanta, we had to be reminded that while Dr. King was a symbol of hope, he was not the source of our hope. Had to be reminded that the work of love did not die with the apostle of love. Had to be reminded that our hope is not in human progress or goodness; our hope is in the sovereignty and the enduring love of God.

Do you believe that?

Forty years ago, a man not eligible for any draft deferment was thrust into the midst of war. He returned home with his body essentially unscathed but his soul shredded by what he had seen and done.  Like many thousands of our military veterans, Sam Varnado ended up homeless and alcoholic.  With the help of others, he fought those demons besetting him, got involved with Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, thence with the AA group meeting in Network Ministries’ space on Eddy Street which had been founded by his new friend Joe, whom he had met at 7th Avenue.  Although in and out of homelessness and other ills, Sam eventually took the helm of that group, and at his funeral last month tearful testimony was given to his compassion, his reaching out to others to draw them off the streets and into sobriety, his faithfulness to that six-morning-a-week ministry in the heart of the Tenderloin.  At the end of the service, a man rose and in a rich baritone voice gave us the final tribute to Sam’s witness to hope.  “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me; Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be. With God our Creator, family are we; Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.”

The people Sam pulled out of despair will continue this ministry, reaching out in love to people on the sidewalks and in the rundown hotels: “Come up here with us.”

Forty years ago, a baby was born. She would suffer a lot in her growing-up – her cries for help unheeded –  eventually succumbing to homelessness and drug addiction. Miraculously, at age 19, she took the hands reaching for her and scrambled out of that despair, becoming a beacon of light, a symbol of hope to countless others still where she once had been. Today, she reaches out in love to those coming to the SafeHouse for Women. On Resurrection Sunday, residents and graduates of SafeHouse went into the streets and the dark hallways of skuzzy hotels which are virtual brothels. They brought food, hygiene kits, SafeHouse brochures to sisters still where they once had been. More important, in their own transformed lives, they brought light and hope.  In those bleak times when I do not believe in God’s Resurrection Power, the courageous, resilient women of SafeHouse call out to me, as they called to other women on Easter:  Come up here with us.

Forty years ago, a man entered seminary planning to become Presbyterian clergy. It was not to be. That man came to the early house churches Network Ministries offered, eventually developing his own unique ministry as a businessman and a leader in many righteous causes, including the Minimum Wage Campaign to bring us a little closer to wage justice.  He inspired and guided Network Ministries’ early projects providing essential computer skills and access to the poor, with all the hope and hand-up that can give.   Forty years ago, a girl was barely out of diapers. Who knew that she would grow into the woman who would take this small computer lab and expand it into an ecumenical partnership which is a major model for closing that ever-more-worrisome digital divide.

Meanwhile, Barry is now shaping a campaign educating people about the squandering of our precious resources in the staggering sums budgeted for military purposes. He calls this ministry “Not My Priorities”, urging us to take action and giving us a way to get started on that.  Friends, our tax dollars support a military budget nearly equal to the combined defense budgets of every other country in the world!  Barry thinks this is indefensible and Network Ministries has embraced his prophetic work to overcome the culture of poverty, racism and militarism embedded in this budget.  I daresay Barry will be in the Social Hall with his material and I encourage you to take some of it.  It is too easy to see the magnitude of this task as a cause for despair. Instead, see the Not My Priorities campaign as a symbol of hope.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”

Forty years ago, there were only a few, faint murmurs about ordaining gay and lesbian people in our denomination.  Obviously, there were many Presbyterians still struggling with the notion of ordaining a heterosexually married woman.  Gradually, murmurs morphed into conversation, into committees to “study the issue,” into calls for justice.

“Love one another,” Jesus said, “as I have loved you.”  In a time when it appeared that our denomination was less concerned with loving one another than it was concerned that some people might be loving the “wrong” people in the wrong ways, you raised up one of your own to lead the Covenant Network. With tact and tenacity, Pam shepherds us in the way of God’s Inclusive Love, proclaiming not just the full acceptance of LGBT people in church and society, but the full affirmation of all God’s daughters and sons.  Recent votes – recent decisions – here and there indicate that we are inching toward the realization of that vision of Love.

“Let us walk with each other, in perfect harmony.”

Forty years after Old First Church took the bold step of ordaining a woman, our country is enmeshed in not one but two wars, now approaching a decade in length.  As Dr. King foretold, racism, militarism and poverty, the three-headed beast, stalks the planet.   When you are tempted to do nothing because there is so much to do, (and we all have those times), when you are tempted to succumb to the blasphemy of despair, when the fears come, when you cannot believe in God’s Resurrection Power,  look around – God still raises up prophets and apostles of peace and love who call out: Come up here with us. Arms around each other, let us grieve and weep openly, sing and pray openly. Then move back into the work of love which has been entrusted to us.

Prophets are not only those few who are propelled into public prominence, for a prophet is simply one who brings the Word of God’s love and God’s true justice to bear on our own times.   Mostly, they labor in relative obscurity.  They are the leaven in the loaf, patiently, persistently proclaiming “our hope is in the sovereignty and love of God” even when they do not fully grasp that truth themselves.

Come up here with us, they call – so you can see the vision given to the writer of the Book of Revelation: “The home of God is with human beings. God will dwell among them and they shall be God’s peoples, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, nor mourning nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away.  … Nothing that has cursed humankind shall exist any longer.”This vision was not written as pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye.  It is the Glorious Vision of Peace we are all called to enact in the here and now.

Do you believe that?

________

Glenda Hope is the Executive Director of Network Ministries in San Francisco since 1972, offering service, training, pastoral presence, empowerment, and respect to some of San Francisco’s most deeply marginalized.  A winner of the Woman of Faith Award and the Moderator’s Award for Justice, she is a Distinguished Alumna of both Union-PSCE and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the recipient of innumerable other civic and religious honors.  She was the first Presbyterian clergywoman ordained on the west coast.

Comments

  1. As a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Woodbury, MN and the administrator of First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater, MN, I am in full agreement that we need to be inclusive. God made people as they are and we need to be accepting.

  2. Barry Boyer SFTS '71 says

    Powerful work in the heart of the city. Thanks for your leadership, Glenda.

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